By Joshua Partlow and Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:24 AM
KABUL - Gen. David H. Petraeus, the coalition military commander in Afghanistan, warned Afghan officials Sunday that President Hamid Karzai's latest public criticism of U.S. strategy threatens to seriously undermine progress in the war and risks making Petraeus's own position "untenable," according to Afghan and U.S. officials.
Officials said Petraeus expressed "astonishment and disappointment" with Karzai's call, in a Saturday interview with The Washington Post, to "reduce military operations" and end U.S. Special Operations raids in southern Afghanistan that coalition officials said have killed or captured hundreds of Taliban commanders in recent months.
In a meeting Sunday morning with Ashraf Ghani, who leads the Afghan government's planning on transition, Petraeus made what several officials described as "hypothetical" references to an inability to continue U.S. operations in the face of Karzai's remarks.
The night raids are at the heart of Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy and are key to his hopes of being able to show significant progress when the White House reviews the situation in Afghanistan next month.
Officials discounted early reports Sunday that Petraeus had threatened to resign. But "for [Karzai] to go this way, and at that particular stage, is really undermining [Petraeus's] endeavors," one foreign diplomat in Kabul said. "Not only his personally, but the international community." Several officials in Washington and Kabul requested anonymity in order to discus the issue.
The weekend controversy came days before NATO leaders, including President Obama, are scheduled to hold a summit in Lisbon that will begin to set a timetable for transition - the process of turning portions of Afghanistan security control over to Afghan forces. The summit, which Karzai is to attend, will also set 2014 as a deadline for the end of coalition combat operations there and will showcase a long-term NATO-Afghan partnership.
Petraeus "never actually threatened resignation," but his comments to Ghani reflected his desire to ensure that the Afghans understood the seriousness of the situation, a senior NATO military official said.
"We've been [subsequently] assured that President Karzai is fully supportive of the joint strategy, that we share the desire for Afghan forces to take the lead, and that we've worked hard together to address all the issues over which [Karzai] raised concerns and will continue to do so," the official said.
Petraeus did not attend a scheduled meeting Sunday with Karzai, officials said. Karzai's spokesman also cancelled a scheduled news conference. Some Afghan officials Sunday attempted to smooth over the issue by declaring Karzai's respect for Petraeus and faith in his strategy.
It is "categorically false" to interpret Karzai's remarks as a "vote of no-confidence in Gen. Petraeus," one senior Afghan official said. In addition to agreement on ending the coalition combat mission by the end of 2014, he said, there are many areas of "common interests and common objectives."
"These are two men who are comfortable working with each other. There's an environment of mutual respect, and trust has been building among them," the official said.
In the Saturday interview, Karzai said that the often-troubled U.S.-Afghan dynamic had improved since Petraeus's arrival in the summer, and that the two countries have a more "mature relationship." But he also outlined a vision for the U.S. military presence here that sharply conflicts with the Obama administration's strategy.
In addition to ending night raids, Karzai said that he wants U.S. troops to be less intrusive in the lives of Afghans, and that they should strive to stay in their bases and conduct just the "necessary activities" along the Pakistan border.
"I think it's [Karzai's] directness that really sticks in the craw," another NATO official said. "He is standing 180 degrees to what is a central tenet of our current campaign plan."
"It's pretty clear that you no longer have a reliable partner in Kabul," the official added. "I think we tried to paper it over with [Karzai's] Washington visit" in May. "But the wheels have becoming looser and looser . . . since that."
The latest rift follows a string of public disputes between Karzai and the West in recent months. They clashed on corruption issues last summer after Karzai freed an aide from jail who was accused of soliciting a bribe and moved to stem the activities of U.S.-backed anti-corruption investigations.
This fall, Karzai's push to disband private security companies that protect foreign assistance projects was seen as putting at risk billions in development aid. His public comments, often bluntly criticizing the West for meddling or worsening the war by harming civilians, have made it difficult for the nations to deliver a common message.
In Washington, officials described Karzai's remarks as nothing out of the ordinary and said he had expressed similar views to Petraeus and other officials in private.
"While we certainly didn't expect the list that he laid out," a senior administration official said, "the fact that those were concerns to him was not a surprise to us."
The official added: "Obviously, President Karzai has expressed some frustration recently. We've been working very hard to deal with those frustrations. It's challenging. That's no secret." The administration, he said, shared some of Karzai's concerns and was trying to "work with" him to address them.
At the Lisbon summit, NATO plans to declare that progress in the war will enable "transition" to Afghan security control, beginning in the spring. Petraeus is to decide which provinces and districts are stable enough to turn over to Afghan national security forces, with coalition troops remaining in an "overwatch" capacity as they head toward complete combat withdrawal by the end of 2014.
Coalition officials hope that the formal start of the transition process will allow Karzai to assert that his concerns about a reduced foreign military footprint are being addressed. Areas slated for transition will be cleared with the Afghan government and Karzai will announce them in coming months.
"We are making sure that he is the person who is out front," the senior administration official said.
NATO has emphasized that "transition" decisions are separate from decisions made by individual coalition members about withdrawing their forces from Afghanistan altogether. Obama has pledged to begin bringing U.S. troops, now totaling about 100,000, home from Afghanistan in July, although the administration has said the size and pace of the drawdown will be determined by "conditions on the ground."
Many coalition officials said they have grown accustomed to Karzai's provocative statements and think that they are intended primarily for an Afghan audience. But others worry that such comments will erode NATO's resolve to stay in Afghanistan, already challenged by declining public approval of the war in member nations.
"It undermines the support and trust of the Western countries," one foreign diplomat in Kabul said. "That's what the NATO summit should be all about. Are we on the same page? Or are we in different worlds?"
DeYoung reported from Washington.